Butter vs Margarine (or Vegetable Oil)

I thought everyone who really cared about food was already off margarine and vegetable oil. So it was disturbing to learn that one of my favorite people, who is not only an excellent cook but also a European, still allows margarine some prized real estate in his fridge.  If I know one user, there must be others out there.

This post is for you or your friend who needs this information.

5 REASONS TO QUIT MARGARINE AND VEGETABLE OIL ONCE AND FOR ALL:

1) BUTTER TASTES BETTER.

Obviously, on taste alone, butter wins. Its rich golden goodness cannot be compared to margarine. Why wouldn’t you want to apply the better tasting ingredient to your fried eggs, popcorn and steamed broccoli?

2) IN THE INTEREST OF HEART HEALTH, BUTTER IS NOT NECESSARILY WORSE THAN MARGARINE, AND MAY BE BETTER.

To be clear, butter is saturated fat. Saturated fat has for years gotten a bad rap for raising cholesterol, especially the so-called, “bad” LDL cholesterol. But the truth about cholesterol is not so simple. While butter has been shown to raise the LDL, it has also been shown that the LDL particles produced by butter are the benign, large, fluffy ones, not the small, hard particles associated with heart disease. As of 2015, even the US Dietary Guidelines have been reversed on this point, basically admitting that the US Government was, for 35 years, wrong.

Cholesterol is in fact an important nutrient for the development of our bodies. It and saturated fats make up 70% of the myelin in our cells and are therefore very necessary to our vitality. According to Dr Terry Wahls, who recovered from multiple sclerosis with her diet, inclusive of butter, the blood value of cholesterol does not really predict very well whether heart disease or atherosclerosis are looming. She emphasizes that healthy cholesterol molecules are essential for healthy cells.

Harvard Health, concurs, stating that “there never was any good evidence that using margarine instead of butter cuts the chances of having a heart attack or developing heart disease.”

In the old days, we thought subbing margarine for butter was the right thing to do. This is when 1) we thought all cholesterol or even all LDL cholesterol was bad and 2) before we knew about trans fats, which is what makes some margarine products solid. Trans fats are now recognized universally to be way worse for us than saturated fats and should be avoided all together, full stop. Unlike margarine, there are not and never were any trans fats in butter.

3) BUTTER IS THE LESS PROCESSED OF THE TWO.

It is generally agreed, based on common sense, that for health, less processing of food is better.

How does margarine compare to butter in this arena?

Butter is produced by taking the fatty part of cow’s milk and churning it. (If we are being careful we can look for grass-fed cows.) Maybe some salt is added.

Margarine, on the other hand, requires multiple manufacturing steps to be made. Its primary ingredients are vegetable oil, emulsifiers, colorants and various artificial ingredients. Because vegetable oil is liquid at room temperature, it must be hydrogenated to become a solid. Hydrogenation often requires the use of trans-fats, which as already mentioned, are evil. Taking a further step backward, vegetable oil itself is a highly processed product. In the case of soy bean, corn & canola oil, it requires deodorizers, chemical processors and lots of high heat, to remove its ugly smell. Yuck.

And by the way, all that high heat used in processing margarine (and vegetable oil) leads to an unstable oil that oxidizes quickly. Consuming oxidized food, or food-like products, leads to inflammation (ie disease) in the body. This is why searching out quality cold-pressed sources of oil is so important.

So margarine, even the margarine produced today without or with fewer trans fats, compared with butter, falls short when considering the amount of processing required.

4) THE HISTORY OF MARGARINE, WHILE INTERESTING, IS PROBABLY NOT APPEALING TO PEOPLE WHO WANT TO EAT REAL FOOD.

The history of butter? Well, there is some argument as to which group of peoples produced it first, probably by accident, as some sort of milk transported in a pouch on a long journey on a domesticated animal became butter by the time the traveler arrived at her/his destination.  According to the National Geographic, butter has been with us for about 4,000 years.

And margarine? How, why & when did it appear on our food-scape?

Well, that’s a longer story occupying a much shorter time-frame.

Margarine was invented in 1869 by a chemist in France in response to Napoleon III’s call for help to create a cheaper, longer-lasting alternative to butter to fortify his troops. The first margarine was made of beef tallow, milk and water. This doesn’t seem soooo bad. Then a Dutch manufacturing company got involved and made the product even cheaper by swapping out beef tallow for plant-based fats, which turned the substance a sickly white-ish grey. This in turn prompted the company to apply yellow food dye to the product to make it look familiar.

Margarine production turned into a profitable business quickly, and within 10 years there were some 35 manufacturers operating in the US alone.

The US dairy-farming states were not amused. Their rallies eventually led to outlawing the sale of margarine in some states. In others, margarine manufacturers were prevented from artificially dying their products yellow. Some states went further and forced the companies to dye their products – and the color they were required to dye them was bright pink, red or black. A federal margarine tax was soon instituted, licenses and fees were required to sell it, and so on.

Team Margarine hung in there, though, and especially during the depression, was rewarded with grateful customers for their cheap alternative to butter. Finally, in 1950 the dairy famers relented, and the government dropped the margarine tax.

Luck smiled wider upon the margarine industry though, because at this same time, the low-fat diet myth, supported by the American Heart Association, took off. Margarine was re-branded from “cheap butter alternative” to “health food,” due to its lack of saturated fat. Margarine’s popularity surged in a US population done with World War 2, but ready to fight the war on fat.

Now we know that the low fat diet, though well-intended, doesn’t work.

And while the history of margarine is indeed interesting, it also reveals the product to be far from either natural or wholesome.

For this reason, butter is rightfully making a comeback and its sales in the US have topped margarine for the past few years.

5) BUTTER IS MORE NUTRITIOUS THAN MARGARINE.

Margarine contains oxidized oils at best and at worst trans fats. What do our bodies do with “foods” they do not recognize? They store them somewhere safely out of the way of major organs. And such stuff is stored as, guess what? — fat. No kidding. Our bodies do not understand why we have poured weird oxidized or hydrogenated substances into them and therefore try to lock them safely away from major organ systems so they cannot do damage.

Butter, on the other hand, has a respectable nutritional profile, including conjugated lineolic acid (CLA) which is associated with health benefits, vitamins A, D, E, B12 and K2, trace minerals, including the anti-oxidant selenium and iodine.

IN CONCLUSION

The sad thing is that we consumers were led to believe that the tastier, more natural product, butter, is actually worse for our health than the chemically manufactured stuff. With product names like “Better Than Butter” and “Flora“ we are told that the processed food will make us healthy.

Please, stop listening to that. Eat real butter. Enjoy it. If you want to be extra healthy, look for organic butter made from grass-fed cows.

I realize in the 80’s we did not know that food companies would lie to us. That’s ancient history now. Also, nutritional science is a developing field. As science’s knowledge of our bodies’ nutritional needs evolve, we need to do our best to keep up, as if our lives depend on it.

Because, of course, they do.

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